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SMa.r.t. Column: Two Principles for a New City

Our City has been devastated by the coronavirus, by its economic fallout and just three weeks ago, by a looting disaster. The pain and panic of these disasters unleashed a flood of projects, proposals and policies to try to get us back to “normal” as quickly as possible. While some of these initiatives are no brainers, some are an attempt by certain groups to get dubious advantages unavailable in normal times, some are the same tired failed old bromides, and finally some are truly valuable to move our City toward a future better than the old dysfunctional “normal”. Citizens and policy makers both will be struggling to decide into which category any initiative must be placed. SMart (Santa Monica architects for a Responsible Tomorrow) would propose two principles to help us decide whether any proposal is worth pursuing:

  1. DOES IT HELP US LIVE WITHIN OUR NEWLY LIMITED MEANS?

Basically our City has taken a giant “haircut” or “pay cut “ which will require massive expense reductions. Capital projects will have to be cancelled or delayed, staff positions eliminated or have their pay grade cut. I do not envy the tough choices our City Council faces.

Essentially, our previously fat, overpriced and overpaid City is now living in a shrinking universe and needs to go on a diet. We can see that tourism will come back very slowly while sales taxes will likewise struggle to recover. Many looted businesses are simply not coming back, while Amazon has permanently crippled our already deeply troubled retail sector: the Promenade was on the ropes long before the looters struck. Finally, the office sector will endure major shrinkage, since more and more information workers now find they can work at home. These contractions, once we get over the temporary surge of “pent up demand”, will become inexorable as leases are not renewed, businesses collapse or flee for cheaper venues.

On the income side, our ability to increase prices, fees and penalties from our newly impoverished visitors, citizenry, businesses, and merchants is quite limited on our way toward a balanced City budget.

This diet will require clear thinking under the massive pressure of entrenched interest groups. Tempting, unlikely, rosy, economic growth projections need to be disregarded to get to a realistic balanced City budget. Likewise clever accounting tricks will also have to be abandoned on the path forward. If later, we get State or Federal help, that will be a wonderful bonus, but we cannot rely on it today.

Naturally the real estate vultures, who knowing the City is desperate, will be trying to pick up your City properties for a song. For example developers want to charge ahead with the unpopular 5th and Arizona 12 story skyscraper to be built on land you citizens own. Our city assets must not be sold as they are too vital for our future needs: in that specific case a new badly needed park for an increasingly dense downtown. We do not need to incentivize new offices, retail or hotels until our crippled existing such services have had a chance to recover. In this time of crisis we do not want to threaten our existing often long term vendors with more unnecessary competition and we certainly don’t want to give up City owned land.

This Tuesday June 23rd 5:30pm the City Council will be hearing this skyscraper project. You can voice your opposition at councilmtgitems@smgov.net or by calling (310) 458-8423. A massive public outcry will be needed to stop this unnecessary disaster.

Historic recovery scenarios all suggest that enduring painful cuts early is the quickest way to stability and rebound. Failure to do so quickly, just extends the pain and freefall our City finds itself in. A frenzied increase of construction won’t solve our runaway budget issues. Living within your means is not new or sexy but absolutely essential to recovering municipal entities. Finally the inevitable cuts that must be made, should not be made gratuitously, but so as to distribute the pain as equally as possible among the City service beneficiaries and providers. If the City favors some over others, it feeds cynicism and reduces the buy in by a traumatized citizenry whose public health cooperation will be needed to avoid a second virus wave.

  1. DOES IT MEET OUR REGIONAL NEEDS?

While our City’s primary responsibility is to meet the needs and respect the capacities of its residents, it does have two other specific regional responsibilities.

Our City’s primary regional role is to be the lungs of West Los Angeles, the way Central Park is the lungs of New York. We are the beach front playground for West Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley because of our exceptional light rail and freeway access to our glorious beaches. Only Long Beach has a similar role and configuration. Every weekend and all summer we host thousands of climate refugees who are cooked out of those inland saunas and who find relief in our views, open spaces, breezes and recreational facilities. Any time we gentrify and density our City we cripple this real most important regional purpose.

These low cost visitors are a stable source of City income fortunately relatively independent of the status of international relations with China, independent of the exchange rate of the dollar and independent of shifting fads of desirable tourist destinations. We cannot rely on the rich continental or international tourist to build a sustainable economy since they are equally impoverished by the collapse of their economies, international fluctuations will always threaten, as will lingering virus fears and because our public reputation took a major hit when the police let the looters run rampant. If some of those wealthier tourists return quickly great, but lets not think they will “rescue” us soon.

Our City has also had a historical job/housing inbalance with more jobs than housing. This three decade planning failure is at the root of our housing affordability crisis. We see that every morning and afternoon with a 3 mile parking lot on the west and east bound #10 Freeway every morning and afternoon. Since our built out City does not have the water, the solar power generating capacity, the open space availability (essential both for a healthy and virus surviving city), public safety capacity, and the traffic/mobility capacity for much more growth, we should now try to reduce our excess commercial real estate and start to balance housing and jobs by repurposing offices and commercial spaces into housing.

It is much cheaper and quicker to repurpose existing buildings than to build new ones plus this solution does not destroy existing housing. By adding local housing this way and assisted by other cities redistributing jobs to their periphery of the LA basin, where land and housing are cheap, Santa Monica helps ease the regional transit gridlock improving the lives and air quality for the entire region.

The state of California, infected with real estate and construction industry bias has tried to coerce our City with the fantasy of building 9000 new units in the next 8 years as a delusional path to affordability. This mirage will not happen as the County population has flat lined or even decreased, we don’t have the space, building new often destroys existing housing and always raises existing housing costs on a newly impoverished citizenry, new housing is too expensive to be ever be affordable so it only accelerates gentrification. Meanwhile the repurposing of office and retail to housing, adding accessory dwelling units in all zones, and the return of some Air BnB units to permanent rental housing (because of the collapsing tourist industry) will all reduce the real demand for more housing. The path to a stable housing environment is possible without destroying our City by going on Sacramento’s fool’s errand.

So our City can meet its regional responsibility of remaining a low cost visitor destination for our eastern neighbors and of equalizing its jobs/housing imbalance without destroying its desirable beachside quality. These two principles, living within our means and equalizing jobs and housing can lead our city to a better future than a reflexive wishful return to our previous dysfunctional “normal”.

By Mario Fonda-Bonardi for Smart Santa Monica Architects for a sustainable Tomorrow
Thane Roberts, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Architect, Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi, AIA, Planning Commissioner, Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission.

For previous articles see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writing

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